I was immediately intrigued when I came across the dust jacket of The Jester’s Reign in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library several years ago. The Jester’s Reign, according to the dust jacket blurb, is “A series of mysterious cosmic phenomena broke upon a startled world, defying the laws of nature and baffling the scientists” that takes place in the course of one month somewhere in the 1930s. After months of being put off by the fact that the handful of copies for sale all commanded prices of $40 and up, I finally broke down and bought one in March.
I wish I could say it was worth the wait and expense.
It starts with promise. An odd, loud, but unmistakable noise like laughter sounds for just a moment throughout the entire world. Most people are startled. Those of good humor feel the better for it. Those with shriveled up hearts feel uneasy and fearful. And a small collection of people in Manhattan sharing a small open space not much larger than an airshaft begin to find their lives coming together in unexpected ways.
At the center of this group is Mister Ergo. A quiet older man, Mister Ergo seems to have some connection with the “phenomenon,” as the newspapers quickly dub it. Or phenomena, to be more accurate, as the laughter is soon followed by a series of fantastical and gently whimsical occurences. In one of the earliest, everyone in the world stops for a moment to greet each other:
Diplomats said “How do you do?” to messenger boys, bank presidents said it to the charwomen. Functionaries said it to elevator boys. Spinsters said it to bachelors, stenographers to street sweepers, sweepers to ladies in limousines. An opera singer said it to a coal heaver, magnates said it to beggars, policemen to cab drivers, a queen said it to a lunatic, a duchess to a ragpicker. Theives said it to ministers, chorus girls to managers, general to privates, ships’ captains to stokers … and so on all through the walks of life where life was walking at that moment occurred this involuntary interchange of mutual recognition and solicitude.
Certainly the like had never been known on this planet before.
It was true that there were strange complications as a result of the phenomenon. Some were chagrined afterwards, and even mortified. For instance, two lady club members, deadly enemies, who chanced to stand side by side at a bargain counter went home and had nervous prostration because they had spoken to each other. A farmer and his wife in Vermont, who had shared farm, and farmhouse, and even bed, for forty years but had not spoken to each other since 1907, immediately applied for a divorce, unable to survive the shame of the breaking of their resolution.
Soon, the phenomena bring together a cast of characters a bit like a collision between “Major Barbara” and “Golden Boy.” There is a wealthy playgirl; an even wealthier armaments magnate; a boxer with the soul of a poet; his poor but gorgeous neighbor with an operatic voice; her snivelling gonif of a brother; a sweet spinster; and roughly a dozen others. Not one of them acquires the slightest depth of characterization in the course of the book’s 300-plus pages.
If a novel’s characters are flat and undeveloped, then its narrative could make up for that. And at first, it seems there might be some direction, some shape, some meaning to the various phenomena. Some are a bit dewy-eyed, like the rain of flowers that drop from the skies and sprout from the mouths of every cannon and rifle. Others are downright worth wishing for in real life:
… every frenzied activity was suspended, every adult straining muscle and thought relaxed, surrendered, enjoyed the mysterious hiatus in which the very idea of Hurry melted out of the human brain. In that marvelous fragment of time mankind had an experience never known before. It saw, down a vista like a deep green tunnel of woodland boughs, the future stretching thousands and millions of years away, with time for everything to be done without haste or concern.
By the time the book is nearly 95% done, however, nothing much more has happened than a month’s worth of phenomena and a lot of scurrying around by the various characters. Mister Ergo tries to explain what it all means in the climactic scene : “The New Hope will come. A New Hope always has come, created out of the need that is the core of Desolation. What will it be? Who can say … and how does it matter?” There is more of this, but it’s all essentially New Age-y babble.
Personally, I have always found that when a novel ends with a speech in which one character that tries to explain what it all means, what it really means is that the novelist ran out of ideas and is trying to substitute argument for imagination. It’s like cutting directly from Shakespeare to a Presidential debate. Whatever it is, it ain’t art. Is what Mister Ergo has to say really going to make a difference to any of other characters–or the reader?
If this technique ever worked–and if it didn’t for Tolstoy in War and Peace, why would it for a lesser writer?–then criticism would be indistinguishable from art. But it isn’t, and The Jester’s Reign doesn’t succeed where War and Peace failed. You’d be better of stopping 10-15 pages short and making up your own ending.
From what little I could piece together about her, Grainger was born Bonita Ginger, either in Colorado or England, in the late 1800s. She moved to New York around the time of World War One and was one of the colony of writers and artists like John Reed and e. e. cummings who settled in Patchin Place at the end of the war. She wrote a novel called, The Hussy, which was published by Boni and Liveright in 1924. It appears to have been a satire on the double standards of romantic/sexual behavior that existed between men and women at the time. Aside from The Jester’s Reign, she only published a short bundle of poems (Five poems) and a sweet memoir of Greenwich Village life in the 1920s (We Lived in Patchin Place). She apparently ran an informal speakeasy called “Bonnie’s Office” to make ends meet during the Prohibition, and befriended artists and writers old (brothers Theodore and Llewellyn Powys) and young (Esther McCoy) during her time in Patchin Place. She died sometime around 1962.